To hear Tom Hanks describe him, the hero who broke "The Da Vinci Code" is an academic superman whose knowledge of art, religion, history and philosophy can handle anything. But in his next movie adventure, a Vatican official catches Harvard professor Robert Langdon off guard with this eternal question: "Do you believe in God?"
As a scholar, he says that he will never be able to answer that question. The papal aide then asks what his heart says.
"It tells me that I'm not meant to," says Langdon.
Meanwhile, Hanks does believe in God and, during early press events for the upcoming movie "Angels & Demons," he stressed that he isn't a believer when it comes to conspiracy theories. This puts the superstar in an interesting position since he's playing the hero in a franchise built on the unorthodox visions of novelist Dan Brown -- who is on his way to creating a Universal Unified Field Theory of Vatican Conspiracies.
"Conspiracy theories, I think, are ... conjured up by people who can then sell their books about conspiracy theories," said Hanks, with a shrug. "Anytime someone says, 'You know how they did that? You know what that's about? You know what the conspiracy is?', I automatically tune that person out."
Of course, looming over the May 15 release of this film is the global firestorm created by Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," which opened with the infamous claim: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." The novelist then spun a tale about a charismatic and ultimately human Jesus who married, had a child and tried to create a feminist, sexually liberated faith two millennia before Woodstock.
Brown wrote "Angels & Demons" before "The Da Vinci Code," which became a movie from director Ron Howard. The new film is framed as a sequel, with a tweaked plot that opens with humbled Roman Catholic leaders turning to Langdon for help in unraveling another ancient conspiracy. This time, a shadowy network of freethinkers -- the "Illuminati" -- are seeking revenge by blowing up the Vatican.
Rome wasn't amused by "The Da Vinci Code" and didn't embrace Howard and crew this time, either. The director was denied permission to enter the Holy See or to film key scenes inside the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. As a church spokesman told the Daily Telegraph: "Usually we read the script but in this case it wasn't necessary. Just the name Dan Brown was enough."
Howard stressed that his new film includes good Catholic believers as well as bad and that Langdon's character is forced to develop a "more complex view of the church."
"I feel that the good and bad believers have to do with the good and bad in their deeds," said Howard. "Belief is personal and to be respected. But behavior and actions taken on behalf of those beliefs, well that's something that society has to react to when it's bad and applaud when it's good."
For example, Hanks quoted key lines in which the Swiss Guard commander aims this shot at the hero: "My church feeds the hungry and takes care of the needs of the poor. What has your church done? Oh, that's right, Mr. Langdon, you don't have one."
"This is true," noted Hanks, whose complex family history included doses of Catholicism, Mormonism, the Church of the Nazarene and several years as a Bible-toting evangelical teen-ager. "The church does feed the poor. It does take care of the hungry. It heals the sick. I think that the grace of God seems to be not only in the eye of the believer, but also in the hands of the believer."
These days, he said, he still ponders the big questions, while raising a family with his Greek Orthodox wife, actress Rita Wilson. Miracles are everywhere in daily life, he said, and it's the "mystery of it all" that continues to haunt him.
"I must say that when I go to church -- and I do go to church -- I ponder the mystery," he said. "I meditate on the, 'why?' of 'Why people are as they are,' and 'Why bad things happen to good people,' and 'Why good things happen to bad people.' ... The mystery is what I think is, almost, the grand unifying theory of all mankind."